Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Franco-German Cooperation in Action

People who are familiar with the railway systems of Europe will be aware over the last couple of decades, a substantial number of high speed (300km) railway lines have been built in France, in Germany, in Spain, and lines are now being built in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Britain.

In a great spirit of European non-cooperation, the French and Germans have each designed their own separate trains, the French TGV and the German ICE. These run on the same track gauge and with the same electrical voltage (25kV AC via overhead wires), but there are other incompatibilities. Early versions of the ICE were too heavy to run on the TGV tracks, and ICE trains can run on steeper gradient tracks than could TGV trains. Both trains are capable of also running on older rail lines, but simply not at speeds any higher than conventional trains.

Over the past few years, the high speed train networks have been expanding. The TGV has covered France, and is about to be extended to London via the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Plus the TGV has been extended to Brussels, and there are plans to extend it to Amsterdam, and to Cologne in Germany. Meanwhile, the Germans have just completed an ICE line from Frankfurt to Cologne. The Belgians have been building an ICE line from Brussels to Cologne.

That's right. In theory, the two systems are about to become connected to one another. We are not quite there yet, because only the first section of the Belgian line (from Brussels to Liege) has been completed. However, train services have commenced using the new line as far as Liege and then the old line on to Cologne.

In theory, this opens up lots of possibilities. Direct fast trains from Frankfurt to Paris, or from Frankfurt to London, or from Frankfurt even to the South of France. This is all good, in theory. However, it practice, it isn't so great. As I have mentioned, the French TGV trains cannot handle the gradient on the German track between Cologne and Frankfurt, so with present trains, through services to Frankfurt can only be run with the German ICE trains. However, for now, the German ICE trains are not compatible with the signalling on the French TGV track. So, between Brussels and Cologne, we presently have three types of train: slow trains using the old track, TGV services (branded Thalys) running from Paris to Brussels to Cologne using the new fast track, and ICE services from Frankfurt to Cologne to Brussels that are using the fast track between Frankfrurt and Cologne, but the slow track in Belgium because the signalling is not compatible. (The signalling systems will apparently be made compatible by June 2003, and then the ICE trains will also use the fast track in Belgium). And did I mention that tickets for the three types of train are not integrated with each other? It is not possible to buy a ticket from Brussels to Cologne and catch the next train: if you are going to catch a German train, you must get a German ticket.

However, things will become worse when the second stage of the Belgian high speed line is completed from Liege to Cologne. At that point, there will be high speed line all the way from Frankfurt to Paris, and beyond. The obvious thing to do would be to run through trains all the way from Frankfurt to Paris. However, the only trains capable of doing this will be the German ICE trains. Given the extent to which the French TGV trains are all about French gloire, it seems somewhat unlikely that the French will allow a German fast train to pull into the station in Paris until a French train can similarly pull into the station in Frankfurt. (Or who knows: they might insist on a French train pulling into the station in Berlin). Thus I suspect we shall be changing trains in Brussels or Cologne for some time yet.

(And just to make life even more confusing, there is another type of very fast train being built by the Italians. One suspects that they will be more willing to dispense with the bullshit, however).

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